Meghan O'Rourke offered a credible description and defense of our of past U.S. Poet Laureate, but as much as I enjoy the reasoning, I find the idea of Kay Ryan , Poet, more interesting than Kay Ryan's poetry. I'm not a fan of ornate language, since most poets do it badly, even those who are praised for it as a default remark, including our drifting poet Laureate Derek Walcott--if similes were empty wine bottles , he'd have drunk himself to death--but I would like some elegance and lift in the briefer lines as well, some polish besides the formulations Ryan offers us from the page. The poems are lean, yes, clever with their internal rhymes, slants, conceits and all the rest, but there isn't the stamp of a personality to enliven these dry dictations. She is compared to Dickinson rather excessively, since Ryan's aim is to move toward a point she's cutting through the underbrush toward; she seems to know before hand what she's driving at, and for me so much of what she does amounts to seeing a neighbor park their car in the same spot for years after the work day is over.
Dickinson's minimalism is a slippery stream to wade into; her habit was to meet herself coming the other way while on an investigation of a nuance; she contained and expressed her own contradicting assertions. Dickinson is the more interesting poet for all the material she implies, suggest, touches up with the minimum of space her poems consume; the dashes and asides still bother us, provoke discussion. Ryan is of the generation that thinks poetry has to have a point to make , a purpose to reaffirm. This makes her work, finally, fatally forgettable.
I'd be pleased if a poet preferring small matters to large themes became our Poet Laureate, but in the matter of Kay Ryan, I find her work malnourished, under muscled, simply lifeless and still as a rusty coin in a cushion crack. She is part of what is termed The School of Quietude, a dismissive term coined by Ron Silliman to describe the poets of the larger market place who concentrate on approaches to poetry that will not attempt to tackle more than one idea at a time. I have less animus toward poets who desire to do one thing well before moving on the next matter at hand, and have taken more than a bit of joy reading Billy Collins, Robert Haas. Collins, though, is someone whom you "get" in short order , amused , shall we say, but his stylish effects but with no compelling reason to revisit the poem. Dickinson, certainly not a Quietuder (although she has been mentioned in conjunction with Ryan's name) , shows all of us that compact does not mean straight forward; whole philosophies and shades of far reaching intellection exist between those dashes. We read her because she's not easy to reach; with each re-reading, the reader tends to bring more to their experience of her work. Collins gets paraphrased, like a joke one half-recalls. The impression he leaves is soon smooths out into a general nothingness like the white noise that makes up radio static.
Bad DayNot every dayis a good dayfor the elfin tailor.Some daysthe stolen clothreveals what itwas made for:a handsome weskitor the jerkinof an elfin sailor.Other daysthe tailorsees a jacketin his mindand sets aboutto find the fabric.But some daysneither the ideanor the materialpresents itself;and these arethe hard daysfor the tailor elf.
From Say Uncle, 2000
SmudgePussycat,pink eared, squintsin the sunshine,sniffing flowers.Button-eyed, shepurrs andfurlicks my legsin the kitchen.Four years ago, fourkittens bornin a drawer, smelledof a barnyard.Mature, she sleepsin a circle,the slope of her head suggests--young doe.TrinityShe meets Iin the bodywhich is onewith my motherI can seewhere sits by the blue fireflame-quick knittingIs she sighingshall I singshe is Iam a long way awaywhen the wind blowswhite wall coal blacklight grey hairmy mother winksfrom the middle of the flameand I rise upand leave heraloneIn the fire a reflectioncoming home?(C) 2008 Kate Watson